Canadian Grieve Jack Layton, Crusader for City Health, Food, Environment and Optimism

By Wayne Roberts

Jack Layton’s death on August 22 feels so cry-out-loud tragic – and has touched a chord across the country with an outpouring of national grief, leading the federal government to hold a formal state funeral in his honor – because he was still brimming with vitality, positive energy and hope even as he knew cancer was stealing his chance to serve the entire country as a beloved and statesmanlike social democratic leader of Canada’s official opposition.

Becoming an articulate and forceful social democrat as leader of Canada’s Official Opposition might have been the second revolution Jack sowed in one lifetime.

Happily, he lived to take a big bite out of the early fruits of the first revolution he instigated — the urban social revolution that developed so organically over the last 30 years that few understood it as a revolution, or recognized the figure with the bicycle, moustache and huge grin as its preeminent leader.

Jack is often likened to Tommy Douglas, the mid-20th century champion of Canada’s universal medical care system — cherished as a pillar of Canadian identity, and a landmark for social compassion and human solidarity that almost all Canadians take pride in.

The comparison between Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton is apt because Jack helped build the matching landmark of Canadian identity. His signature is on new levels of social compassion, human solidarity and public health flowering in municipal governments across the land — thanks to the impact of Jack’s bringing new social movements and Non-Government Organizations of the 1980s into the sphere of municipal government.

Second only to medicare, the unique set of humane institutions and relationships at the municipal level define Canadian identity and character. It can be dated to the time when Jack put his name in the hat for Toronto City Council in 1982.

I also believe his leadership saved Canada from the destructive division in the politics of the United States, where allegedly “liberal” positions on public health and human rights are branded “elite” issues of no relevance to everyday working people. Jack was able to integrate human rights work on behalf of marginalized minorities with campaigns on behalf of public health, the environment and job creation. This is not an accomplishment to be taken for granted, even though he made it look joyfully easy.

To grasp the fullness of this 30-year quiet revolution Jack led, we need only recall two things about the era before Jack came onto the municipal scene.

First, until Jack’s generation, urban residents and citizens couldn’t vote in municipal elections unless they owned property. Toronto renters didn’t get to vote in Toronto elections until the 1960s, almost a hundred years after all male citizens got the right to vote in federal and provincial elections and some 50 years after Canadian women won the right to vote.

Limiting the right to vote to property holders is one marker of pre-1980s cities as bastions of a pre-democratic age. That legacy explains why the City of Toronto is still formally known as the Corporation of Toronto, why owners of Toronto businesses still get to cast a vote as property-owners, regardless of whether they live in the city, why tenants rarely know how much municipal taxes are folded into their rent (usually far above the value of their residence compared to home-owners), and consequently how much city policies determine their well-being. The dramatic under-representation of all city residents in provincial and federal elections is likely the result of the same unstated bias in favor of property and land ownership as the basis for political participation.

The other marker of the old-style pre-democratic city was the standard fare on the municipal agenda – parks, potholes, police, building codes, land-use and the like. That’s why developers and the real estate industry are so dominant in city governments — more blatantly than miners, loggers, manufacturers and financiers dominate “senior” levels of government.

Changing the old rules of the game didn’t come easily to anyone, including reformers. Toronto’s fledgling city reform politics of the 1960s and ‘70s was focused on ratepayer struggles against highrises and freeways. Indeed, Layton’s literature for his first city council campaign of 1982 (which I and Joell Vanderwagen did) harped on high rises and developers.

Aside from the force of his personality, Jack made a splash because he ran as a New Democrat, out to introduce the same partisan and party pris politics linked to the big social and economic issues of the day to the city “sandbox,” as it was often called.

Jack had a big headstart since he came to City Council already an expert in the new urban politics, thanks to a series of university-level radio programs he did with Myer Siemiatycki in 1979, through Ryerson’s Open College radio station.

Layton already saw that “the city was the arena where the big issues of society and the environment would play out, where power and powerless lived close by, and above all where people could organize on their own to resolve the big issues of social exclusion and the environment,” says Siemiatycki .

Within three years of his 1982 election, Layton won the chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, which put him on the fast track to involvement with issues such as s cigarette smoking in public spaces, AIDS, violence against women, poverty, hunger and homelessness – all of which he painted with the brush of universal public health mandate and city responsibility.

Indeed, the Toronto Board of Health’s pioneering work during the late-1980s on the World Health Organization’s Healthy City Charter – which held that the next generation of health improvements would come from social policy changes affecting daily life as much as from medical advances – provided a centre of gravity for how Toronto, and in turn other cities, responded to the social stresses of the 1990s and after.

As chair of the Board of Health, Layton pushed food to the fore in 1990 when he and close friend and colleague Dan Leckie orchestrated the founding of Toronto’s Food Policy Council. This was a “uniquely Laytonian-Leckian-Torontonian innovation” partnering expert and experimental citizen engagement with municipal resources, recalls Debbie Fields, longtime leader of FoodShare, another mainstay of the new transformative government-community collaboration underway during the 1980s. Both Layton and FoodShare identified school meals in low income areas as a major intervention to prevent hunger, one that the City government should support financially.

Just as Layton’s white ribbon campaign of the early-1990s, which initiated male support for the campaign to end violence against women, has now spread to 60 countries, Jack’s invention of food policy councils has spread to over 150 jurisdictions on two continents – Europe and North America.

Rod MacRae, the founding coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, had only been on the job two weeks when a first meeting of different stakeholders was called. A professional facilitator had been called into manage the tense discussions people imagined would happen. Jack, as the founding co-chair of the TFPC representing the Board of Health, just transformed everyone, MacRae recalls, with an appeal to work together to overcome differences and achieve something great. The facilitator didn’t have to interrupt once, MacRae says.

By taking on such leadership responsibilities, Jack taught himself to be graceful rather than brash — less the style of 1960s academically-trained radicals, and more the style of NGOs working in the trenches and needing more resources and partnerships.

When 1997 mayoralty candidate Mel Lastman described homelessness as a downtown Toronto problem a few days before a homeless woman died of cold in Lastman’s own suburban area of North York, the media chased Jack for an angry and sizzling hot put-down. Instead, Jack said Lastman was simply guilty of stereotypes shared by millions of well-meaning citizens, and we all needed to learn about this new problem together. As mayor, Lastman later supported Jack on the need for more affordable social housing, and even appointed Jack—who otherwise might have been his nemesis – to chair the newly-amalgamated city’s Environmental Task Force.

I served as a citizen member on that task force under Jack, who often joked that our job was to get the city to adopt my green economics manual, called Get a Life! Jack, Rod MacRae and I spent an afternoon brainstorming ways to incorporate food into a city’s environmental agenda, and came up with a concept we called “the quick start.” Many people are familiar with the notion of “low-hanging fruit,” easy and obvious ways for individuals, companies or governments to save money.

A “quick start” doesn’t hit you in the face like low-hanging fruit that just has to be picked. The concept is also attuned to low-cost ways that large organizations can cope with changes that might seem easy and obvious, but aren’t. A quick start item meets several tests, none of which speak to whether the proposal is morally strong or weak, but only to the technical tests that define whether it will be quick or take a long time.

Here’s a quick checklist on quick starts:

A quick start has low start-up costs and quick returns. Subways, which require bulky investments of hundreds of millions of dollars before the first passenger pays for a fare, are not a quick start. Staff and public cafeterias that charge an extra nickel today for local and sustainable food staples (apples, for example) bought yesterday pass the quick start test.
A quick start requires no administrative shake-up. A new position can be filled quickly, the work can be placed in an existing department and begin immediately. Consequently, the public’s money goes entirely to the work at hand, not administrative overhead and start-ups.
A quick start arouses no strong resistance or “pushback,” for the obvious reason that resistance takes time to work through and therefore disqualifies a proposal as a quick start. This point draws attention to the special advantage cities have when it comes to policy innovation. For example, Toronto has no industry that produces pesticides; as a result, there is no vested interest within the city to fight against a ban on health-threatening cosmetic pesticides in public parks. A pesticide ban in parks was a quick start in Toronto, adopted after one meeting and motion from the Environmental Task Force, but the same would never be true at the federal level, where pesticide interests almost constitute a most-favored industry.
A quick start benefits several groups in and near the city. A city-subsidized school meal program, for example, improves learning abilities for children from families of all income levels, can boost incomes of local farmers and food processors, and can save the medical system millions in avoided healthcare costs. Such a measure will win widespread support.
A quick start addresses a spectrum of city needs, doing something for jobs and the economy, lower taxes, community development and social cohesion, health promotion and environmental protection. Civic leaders from many different backgrounds and with many different priorities will see the importance of purchasing more local and sustainable food for City food programs because such purchases have an economic, environmental and public health benefit and give the city a reputation as a leader.
A quick start has both a staff and political champion, who will adopt this cause and make sure implementation is well looked after. (We only learned later that this is the Achilles’ heel of the quick start concept.)
In contrast to most environmental statements of the time, which commonly ignored or marginalized food issues – it’s surprising to be reminded of how recent the excitement about food and public policy is — Toronto’s Environmental Task Force produced a list of food “quick starts” – green roofs, community gardens, composting, support for emerging local and eco-friendly food businesses — that anticipate today’s issues..

The Environmental Task Force report, called Clean, Green and Healthy: A Plan for an Environmentally Sustainable Toronto, was unanimously adopted by City Council, and became a major element of the newly-amalgamated city’s vision for itself. Sustainability was identified as a “lens” that integrated social and economic with environmental sustainability, and out this squarely on the core agenda of the modern and progressive city. That’s what made it a game-changer in the world of civic reports.

Jack took that same new-urban spirit into his 2001 presidency of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which gave him a national platform to speak for all cities on social, economic and environmental issues, and to eventually launch his next career as federal leader of the NDP.

Jack led the NDP with a notable ability to focus on practical options, and with great grace in dealings with his political rivals, both skills finely-honed from his municipal experiences.

In his deathbed message, Jack asked people to “be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” His wish has quickly been turned into a poster, available free from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Jack lived these singular qualities on the job, as architect of Canada’s urban public health, food security, human rights and ecological revolution.

We can never know what he might have accomplished in national politics if cancer had not cut his life short. But we know his legacy to local governments and can do much to honor him there.


  1. RIP Jack Layton. He will be missed.

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